Legends have a tendency to do legendary things.
Two hours after the Washington Mystics punched the franchise’s first-ever ticket to the WNBA Finals, the league’s oldest player – not to mention one of its most accomplished, respected and revered – made sure that she would get there to join them.
Sue Bird, strapped into a face mask to shield the fifth broken nose of her career, came off the bench with 6:41 to go in the game, her team down by 4 and struggling to make headway against a battle-tested Phoenix team playing in its fifth elimination game in this postseason.
Bird hadn’t scored since the first quarter. She had made only one of her first six 3-point attempts.
And then, she said, she got some “clutch” advice from the league’s Most Valuable Player, Breanna Stewart.
“Sue, use your legs.”
Stewie, it turns out, knew just the right thing to say.
Bird vaulted her team to the Finals series in front of a raucous KeyArena crowd with a stretch of sublime, emotionally-charged basketball. She scored 14 points in the final 6:41, including three huge 3-pointers to lead the Seattle Storm to a 94-84 win over the Mercury and to the franchise’s first championship series appearance since 2010.
The Storm victory sealed the first bicoastal WNBA Finals matchup since 2005: Sacramento vs. Connecticut. The series, which will have a lot to live up to after a pair of thrilling five-game semifinal matchups, opens Friday night in Seattle.
After the game, her mask replaced with a huge smile and a slightly black eye, Bird said she had just survived “the toughest series she’s ever played in.”
After all, Diana Taurasi, the Mercury superstar who played through foul trouble much of the night, was 13-0 coming into the game in winner-take-all opportunities. Phoenix has championship experience, with numerous players on the roster who have won titles. They were the first team to go down 0-2 in a five-game series and come back to force a winner-take-all game. The Mercury were the toughest of outs.
And Bird couldn’t do it alone. While this game will be remembered for her masked heroics, the reality is that Stewart’s 28 points kept Seattle in striking distance as the Mercury continued to stay in the lead for much of the game.
Sami Whitcomb, whose story of perseverance is one of the best in the league, came off the bench to score 11 points, finishing in double figures for only the third time this season. Rookie guard Jordin Canada finished with seven points and a huge 3-pointer to put the Storm up 66-63 with 8:20 to go.
The sum of all of those parts pushes the Storm, the team with the best regular-season record in the WNBA this season, from last year’s eighth place finish to a championship berth in 2018.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Bird said. “It’s been a crazy ride … I don’t know what to say.”
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Washington Mystics were making some history, knocking off the Dream to earn the franchise’s first trip to the Finals.
Elena Delle Donne, wearing a brace to protect the knee she injured in Game 2, returns to the Finals with a franchise that she now considers her hometown team.
Mike Thibault, the all-time winningest coach in league history, will compete for his first title.
After reaching the semifinals for the second year in a row, the Mystics finally found a way into the championship round.
Delle Donne didn’t need to dominate this game. She needed help, gutting it out on her injured knee. And she got it.
She got it from rookie Ariel Atkins, who put up a career-high 20 points. Kristi Toliver, who won a championship two years ago in Los Angeles, earned the chance to play for another with 19 points and Tianna Hawkins came off the bench to score 17. A 9-0 run in the fourth quarter for Washington erased a 71-69 Atlanta lead with just under seven minutes to go.
“It was so much grit and so much heart,” Delle Donne said after the game. “Nobody felt like they had to be the superhero tonight. Just be yourself.”
Delle Donne said she knew she had to get back on the floor after last Friday’s scary injury and her teammates would pick her up.
“I knew if I came out here and did whatever I could, they would take care of the rest and they carried me on their back the whole game.”
The Dream, playing this series without the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in Angel McCoughtry, fought hard to the finish, but missed out on a fourth trip to the Finals. Atlanta played the best stretch of basketball in the WNBA in the regular season, winning 15 of their final 17 games to earn the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
McCoughtry took the mic on the Dream’s home floor to thank the fans for their support and make this promise.
“We’ll be back.”
There’s no doubt it can be done. Just ask Sue Bird.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.